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Huntington Beach’s in-house prosecutor program has ‘exceeded expectations,’ city attorney says

Huntington Beach’s in-house prosecutor program has ‘exceeded expectations,’ city attorney says
Huntington Beach’s in-house community prosecutor program collaborates with the Police Department to focus on crimes such as petty theft, public drunkenness, resisting an officer, trespassing, drug possession and lower-level sex offenses. (File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Huntington Beach has won 327 convictions under its in-house community prosecutor program since 2017, with 247 people sentenced to jail and 80 probationary sentences assigned, according to data shared by the city attorney’s office this week.

Huntington is Orange County’s second city — after Anaheim — to handle its own prosecution of misdemeanors. The other cities rely on the county district attorney’s office.

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The program is led by community prosecutor Gemia Mercer and collaborates with the city Police Department.

City Attorney Michael Gates told the City Council on Monday that the program has “exceeded expectations” since it gained traction in 2017.

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It has a rolling average of 300 active cases and recently began filing about 80 cases per month, according to Gates.

The program focuses on crimes such as petty theft, public drunkenness, resisting an officer, trespassing, drug possession and lower-level sex offenses in an effort to maintain local residents’ quality of life and clean up downtown issues.

Gates said there has been “tremendous success” with repeat public drunkenness offenders downtown by getting them away from the area or cleaned up through assistance programs.

As part of the cases, courts have ordered $84,568 in fees and fines, Gates said. He said he’s waiting to hear from the city Finance Department how much Huntington has collected from that amount.

Police Chief Robert Handy commended the program Monday, calling it an “extension of community-based policing.” He said it helps boost the Police Department’s impact on repeat lower-level offenders.

“In the past it might’ve been OK for us to have one or two stay-away orders a year ... we’re up to 71, I think,” Handy said. “We’ve been trying to come up with a system on a mobile application where our officers know what those stay-away orders are and who they’re for so when they’re in the field they know that this person is no longer supposed to be at ‘x’ business or on ‘x’ corner.”

In the past, officers made 30 to 40 arrests a year for minor offenses for which there were no real consequences other than time served, he said.

Councilman Mike Posey asked whether the program has established Huntington Beach as a city that prosecutes.

“What are we hearing on the streets? Are the bad guys afraid to come here?” Posey asked.

Handy said he thought so.

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